By ROCCO THOMPSON
Since making her screen debut at the age of ten, Najarra Townsend has amassed impressively long list of credits for an actress so young. With a filmography filled with celebrated indie comedies (Me and You and Everyone We Know) and genre fare (Contracted, Wolf Mother), Townsend is obviously comfortable with emotional extremes and diverse tones, an adaptability that serves her well in Jill Gevargizian’s THE STYLIST – a gory psycho-drama in which Claire, a lonesome hair stylist, descends into murder and madness as she becomes further and further obsessed with one of her clients (Brea Grant). Townsend also starred in the 2016 short that Gevargizian expanded into her 2020 feature, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, which should prove to be something of a breakthrough for the prolific yet under-the-radar talent. Rue Morgue caught up with Najarra Townsend to discuss the role and what she hopes horror fans will take away from THE STYLIST.
When you first starred in the 2016 short, did you have an inkling that it would lead to a feature film? Were you at all reticent to play Claire again?
I knew Jill had hopes of making it into a feature. Once the short started hitting festivals and was so well received, the feature started to become a reality. I had high hopes I would get to bring Claire to the big screen. Jill knew I was on board for the feature version from the beginning. I wanted to tell Claire’s story and have the chance to really dive into her.
You’ve worked with so many different directors, but what makes your working relationship with Jill Gevargizian unique?
Jill and I have now been working together on different projects for over six years and that alone is something that I feel is unique. We’ve become good friends during that time and I think the combination of really enjoying collaborating together and caring about each other is what makes our working relationship so special. Jill isn’t only extremely talented but she is also very kind and loving. She’s one of the most genuine people I know.
Critics are quick to point out THE STYLISTS’s similarities to other horror classics, and Jill even contributed a list of movies that influenced the film for us. Did you watch any of the films Jill was influenced by to prepare?
I did! Jill compiled an amazing list of films with explanations for each as to why she wanted us (the producers) to watch them and what to pay attention to in each film. That was one of the unique touches Jill brought to the table as a director. I absolutely loved having those references as it really expressed how she wanted our film to look and feel.
Though ostensibly a “horror” movie, THE STYLIST is primarily a character study and the work you do onscreen is some of the most compelling the genre has seen in a long time. Was it difficult to be in Claire’s headspace all day? Did you find it at all challenging to play such a troubled character?
I was definitely exhausted at the end of every shoot day, but 10 years ago, I would have found it extremely tough to be in Claire’s headspace all day. In my teens and twenties, I would really take on the emotional weight of the characters I played and would feel really drained by it all during filming. But I find now that I am much more capable of leaving my characters on set. While I’m still putting my body through a lot of extreme emotions and stress, I am able to relax and repair when I’m not on camera, and that has really made playing challenging roles like Claire much easier to take on.
The film never really specifies the root cause of Claire’s demons, which is to its benefit. But, when you’re shooting, do you have a background for the character laid out?
Definitely. I believe it’s vital to most roles but especially a film that is mostly a character study. Jill had some backstory for Claire and we discussed her upbringing and motivation for the things she does. I also journaled a lot as Claire and wrote out many memories for her. I wanted to fill in her life as much as possible so I never felt unsure as to what was motivating her.
You and Brea Grant are cast perfectly against each other, and your relationship is really the core of what makes THE STYLIST so captivating. Can you tell us a bit about working with her?
Finally working with Brea was great! She brought the perfect balance to Olivia. There’s something so effortless about Brea. Every moment with her felt very honest and I loved working opposite her. Off screen, we actually lived together while we were shooting in Kansas City and it was great getting to know her on a more personal level. She’s extremely smart and kind and a fantastic roommate.
You’ve been in your fair share of horror movies, but are you a fan?
I love genre films. The adrenaline of watching a horror movie is addictive. A few of my favorites are Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Descent and May.
Were any of the gore scenes difficult to pull off? How did they compare to the work you did in something like Contracted?
With Contracted a lot of the special effects were on me. I spent hours in makeup every morning and throughout the shooting day, so that in itself was draining. With THE STYLIST, we had a few big special effects that we only had one or two takes to get right, so the pressure of not messing those up felt high. I also have had a lot more experience with special effects since filming Contracted, so that helped me to bring a level of confidence to set on the days we worked with effects.
COVID-19 has obviously made the festival circuit a bit strange, but how has audience reception been for THE STYLIST?
It’s been amazing! It almost makes it even more upsetting that we haven’t been able to go to festivals in person because I would have absolutely loved to see this film with an audience and be able to discuss it with people afterwards. But seeing how people have responded to Claire has really been wonderful. I’m so happy that people have enjoyed the film.
What do you hope viewers take away from THE STYLIST?
I hope people can walk away from this film feeling empathy for Claire. Although she does horrific things that are inexcusable, my goal was to show the human side of her and how much she struggles within herself. This film is ultimately a tragedy in my eyes. I hope the viewer takes away that we all need to be kinder to each other and to ourselves.